Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl tells us, “There are two races of men in the world, but only these two – the ‘race’ of decent men and the ‘race’ of indecent men. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society.”
His truism was discovered by as many as 100,000 soldiers in the First World War trenches in December 1914. In numerous places along the front, men heard soldiers on the other side of no-man’s land celebrating Christmas and courageously stepped out of their trenches to share the festivities. They exchanged songs, stories, food and drink. They agreed to stop fighting in order to bury their dead. There are even stories of impromptu soccer matches breaking out.
What these men discovered was that they had a great deal in common with their’ enemies.’ They, too, were stuck in cold and miserable conditions, far from home, constantly fearing death. They were not the godless villains they were made out to be. They were people, much like themselves, who in different circumstances would have been friends.
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Higher-ranking officers soon became aware of the Christmas truces of 1914, where so many soldiers risked disciplinary measures for fraternizing with the enemy. Although they could not punish all of the soldiers who participated, they made their displeasure known. Men were often transferred to other units to eliminate the new familiarity. When Christmas 1915 arrived, there were far fewer of these truces, and by 1916 they appear to have been eliminated.
Efforts to make peace were not limited to the men fighting. In 1914, a group of British suffragists published an open letter to women on the other side of the war as a peaceful gesture and to promote solidarity. Similar gestures were made by women in other countries. This, again, was a dangerous move. To be seen as unpatriotic threatened to put the suffrage movement at risk and further delay women gaining the right to vote.
We now see the First World War as a horrible mistake that resulted from poor decision-making by world leaders. It put millions of people in a horrible dilemma: choose between following their conscience or doing what they were told.
When we see one person choosing not to follow unjust laws or dangerous leadership, it inspires us. When we see thousands upon thousands spontaneously doing so, it gives us hope for humanity.
What these brave people discovered in 1914 is that much more unites people than divides us. What makes people different is superficial. We are born or choose to live in different places; we speak different languages; we practise different religions; we eat different food and listen to different music.
We can break barriers to our common humanity so easily, as these men did when they came out of their trenches, by simply getting to know each other, sharing music, sports and food, trying to speak each other’s languages, by simply sharing our stories.
Although humanity has made tremendous advances, there are still those who tell us that we need to be suspicious of our sisters and brothers, that they are different and dangerous. Yes, there are a few bad people, but there are bad people among us as well. The vast majority of all people are good, with hopes and dreams for a better world.
There is a reason why the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 still resonates. It’s a story of people discovering the truth about their’ enemies.’
As we celebrate Christmas and the New Year more than 100 years later, let’s honour their courage and embrace their message as we continue to build a better world.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. For interview requests, click here.
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